By researching our ancestry, we learn about ourselves. Genealogical research reveals each family member’s personal history. Much more than just names and dates, it uncovers the historical foundations upon which our natural inclinations are built. At its best, the result genealogical research shows us why we are who we are as a direct derivation of the cultures and traditions of our ancestors. We not only are what we eat, but we are also what our ancestors ate. The journey into our personal family history is worth the effort, both for us and for our descendants.
The first step is to document what you know about your immigrant ancestor. Choose a family tree software program or a secure website to store your family tree data. Record what you know about your ancestors and relatives into this software program or website. Be as specific as possible regarding names, dates, and the locations of events such as births, marriages, deaths, etc. Also, don’t forget to cite your sources, as you may need to revisit a document, a census or other genealogical resource in the future. It may also helpful to create a database or a document detailing all of the resources you have consulted in the search for your ancestors. Make a research plan, listing additional resources to be accessed in the future.
A great way to begin researching your family is by using United States Census records. U.S. Census records are available online through a number of websites, some of which require a paid subscription. It is advisable to begin tracking your family with the most recent census available (1940) and work back through 1930, 1920, 1910, etc. The census gives a snapshot every ten years and is an invaluable tool for genealogical researchers.
Vital records (birth, marriage records) are also an essential way to find your ancestors. As with the census, it’s a good idea to start with your most recent ancestor (perhaps a parent or grandparent) and work your way back. Whenever possible, it is ideal to locate all applicable vital records for each person in your family tree.
Not every ancestor is easy to find in the records. This should not be viewed in a negative sense. It is these “brick wall” ancestors that enable us to expand our knowledge and seek out creative solutions for finding the information we seek. Should you come across a “brick wall” ancestor or family, here are few suggestions:
Cast a wider net with your research. If information about one specific ancestor is not easily located, try researching the spouse, children, brothers, sisters, and other relatives. Documents of the friends or others associated with of your ancestor could also hold the answers to the questions you seek.
Create a timeline for your ancestor with all the details you have collected about his or her life. Timelines can help determine what resources we still need to consult.
Try “genealogy crowdsourcing." Post the info on a genealogy Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ or other social media page or group. Be as specific as you can with names, dates, and locations. Or present your research problem to your local genealogy group or society and ask for feedback and suggestions.
Create a formal research report of all of your findings to date. This may spark ideas for additional sources that may have been overlooked.
Step away from the problem for a little while. After you give yourself some time, you can return to the research problem with a new perspective, ideas, and insights.
Ask / hire a professional genealogist. It is advisable to find a professional genealogist with a specialty in the area of your research inquiry. For example, if you are researching a German immigrant ancestor, it is best to hire someone with expertise in this area.
No matter what challenges you may come across, never lose sight of your research goals. Keep careful track of the research you have done, are currently doing, and hope to do in the future. Always be open to building your genealogical research skills and to expanding your knowledge of history. Even learn foreign languages (as needed) to explore your family tree.
The genealogical community in America is growing every day, giving each of us opportunities for networking and expanding our knowledge. Become a member of a genealogical society; a participant in a genealogy conference or online seminar; or a viewer of genealogy television programs like “Genealogy Roadshow!” Your personal genealogy is the adventure of a lifetime for you and your family. Don’t miss it.
— Mary Tedesco
If your ancestors weren't listed in the 1860 U.S. Census, then they were likely enslaved.